The Sand Trap

Last updated: December 2022

I had just moved to Florida and was working in a physical therapy clinic when I met Renie Calkin. This was only a few months ago. My move had been harder on me than I liked to admit; I missed my friends and family back in New Jersey and I felt lost and isolated under the swaying palm trees.

Meeting Renie Calkin

Renie walked into the clinic with a magnificent presence; if I weren’t a physical therapist, I likely wouldn’t have noticed the foot drop on both of her ankles. She seemed like a really big deal, and I wanted to know why she gave off this aura of success. Renie and I got to talking and I realized why I felt so pulled to discover more.

Renie Calkin had been a professional golfer. She began golfing as a child and then played for Penn State in college. She played golf in the PGA for 25 years, until one day in 2000, she was swinging her club and felt numbness in both her legs below her waist and in both hands. Renie went to the emergency room for an MRI. The lesions of multiple sclerosis were evident upon this imaging.

MS symptoms and life disruptions

Renie’s multiple sclerosis symptoms have remained the same for over two decades. She has foot drop, must walk slowly, and has spasms in her extremities. When Renie tried to swing a golf club after her diagnosis of MS, she found that she couldn’t maintain her balance. Everything that she had worked towards throughout her entire career had seemingly passed through her fingers like sand.

When Renie got her diagnosis, she was told by her neurologist, “You’re going to need a urologist.” It didn’t take long for Renie to discover why. She developed urinary retention and it was discovered that she had a neurogenic bladder. She described it as, the nerves carrying the messages to the brain of the need to pee being disrupted. An unfortunately common issue for those with MS.

Overcoming MS bladder challenges

Renie immediately wanted to address this problem and she learned to use intermittent catheters. She was instructed in the office of the urologist and became a pro at getting a thin, plastic tube through her urethra and up into her bladder. She continues to perform this six times daily at timed intervals, so that urine can leave her body and won’t back up into her kidneys.

I was amazed by this. “You just learned how to do this during one office visit at the urologist’s and you have since mastered this technique?” I asked in delighted surprise. Self-cathing is a tricky art. And it is something most people are ashamed to discuss. Not Renie, however! “Yes, I did,” Renie replied, as she beamed proudly. One could tell she was a person who wouldn’t be held down by her limitations. She simply found a way to embrace them and kept playing as a professional does, when the odds are firmly against her.

Can you get out of the sand trap?

I have never personally liked the sport of golf. My father is an avid golfer and always wanted me to learn. I have no patience for it. It is far more difficult than it looks, where one tiny flick of the wrist can send the ball into the sand trap. On the few occasions when I have played with my Dad, I became very well acquainted with the sand trap. I recalled my utter frustration in trying to hit that damn ball out of it, and something occurred to me.

Renie had been a professional golfer, but because of her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, her life had taken an errant turn into the sand trap. It is where nobody wants to be. Rather than whacking the ground repeatedly with her sand wedge (something I admit to doing), Renie stayed in the game. With her tiny array of very cool catheters, some with lubricant, some which look like little discrete tampons, she works around her neurogenic bladder and beats it at its own game.

Continuing to find your joy

Renie also teaches youth golf at a local course in Florida. With her reassuring manner and decades of expertise, I would imagine that she excels at this. “I still love to be on the course. There is no other feeling on earth like it for me. Just because I can no longer play golf doesn’t mean the thrill of the game is gone,” Renie tells me.

Taking the lesson home with me

As I drove home from work on the day she said these words to me, I realized how dispirited I felt over my move to a new state. I had packed my things and said goodbye to so much of what I knew, but I hadn’t yet gotten back in the game. Instead, I was stuck in the dreaded sand trap and didn’t know how to get out.

It was Renie who showed me how. I imagined her initial sting when the words "multiple sclerosis" had left the mouth of the doctor who looked at her MRI. I imagined how uncomfortable it must have been to insert that urinary catheter for the very first time. And NOW I imagine Renie in the scorching Florida heat, standing on the golf course as she teaches kids to play the sport that made her famous. You see, Renie would never allow herself to stay in the sand trap. And because of what she taught me, I got out of it too.

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